The 'cleantech' industry is more than just wind turbines and solar panels
By Jane Kearns
For many of us, the word ‘cleantech’ calls to mind images of wind turbines and solar panels. But the clean technology industry extends beyond this narrow scope, helping the shift to a low-carbon economy by touching upon almost every aspect of our lives—from concrete that captures greenhouse gases to thermostats that are making homes smarter.
Innovative Canadian companies are driving the evolution of this sector, which is increasing in economic importance every year. According to Clean Energy Canada (a think tank), private-sector employment in green energy surpassed that in the oil sands in 2014.
Canada’s $12-billion clean technology industry has matured into a diverse ecosystem of companies that are gaining worldwide recognition. This year, 11 Canadian companies made the Global Cleantech 100 list, a ranking of the world’s most promising privately held cleantech companies, compiled annually by industry monitor, Cleantech Group. That’s the most Canadian firms to ever make the list.
Canada’s cleantech sector is hitting its stride at the very moment the industry in the United States is facing stiff headwinds from a White House now packed with climate change deniers. The Trump administration has threatened to scale back research funding, raise barriers to international trade and redirect federal support towards reviving the moribund coal industry.
These regressive steps could create a gap in the cleantech market that Canada can step into. As the Global Cleantech 100 list showed, we have a high concentration of world-leading cleantech companies in this country. With a small home market, our firms already have to think globally and look beyond our borders for customers at an early stage. We can leverage this, together with our commitment to free trade, to position Canada as an international leader in clean technologies.
It’s clear that clean technology is riding a long-term and existential shift that will outlast any particular political leader. Toronto-based Hydrostor is developing new ways of storing energy, which is essential in overcoming common challenges with renewables, such as intermittency, and enabling the incredible proliferation of wind and solar energy, that the world has seen in recent years. And it’s showing no sign of slowing any time soon.
In 2015 Hydrostor launched the world’s first underwater compressed-air electricity storage system. It uses off-peak electricity to compress air, then stores it in constructed air cavities on the floor of Lake Ontario, just off Toronto Island. When electricity is more expensive, or is needed on the grid, the weight of the water pushes the air back to the surface where it drives a generator.
Curtis VanWalleghem, Hydrostor’s chief executive, is bullish about the prospects for renewable energy. The company recently completed a funding round to support expansion, and VanWalleghem sees momentum in the renewables sector that will continue despite the new stance from Washington on climate change. In the move toward renewable energy and sustainability, “the world has crossed a tipping point,” he said. “There is nothing any one person or country can do to turn that tide.”
To continue its rapid growth, the company recently partnered with US engineering and construction giant AECOM to sell the technology across North America, and they are already in talks to build an underwater system similar to the Toronto project in Aruba.
While storing energy underwater may have once seemed futuristic, the even more radical idea of sending passengers between cities at ultra high speeds through airless tubes may not be too far off. That’s the concept behind the Hyperloop, popularized by Tesla founder Elon Musk, and which Toronto-based TransPod Inc. is working hard to bring to fruition.
TransPod is conducting design and engineering work on pods that would travel without friction through the tubes using non-contact induction motors. The pods, holding passengers or freight, could zip in less than an hour between Montreal and Toronto, at speeds of around 1,000 km/hour, using renewable sources of power.
“We need to go to the next generation of transportation networks,” said TransPod founder and CEO Sebastien Gendron, noting that 10,000 trucks a year currently travel between Montreal and Toronto, all using fossil fuels. “What the Internet brought to information, this system will bring to people.”
He acknowledged that there is still much to do on practical issues, such as acquiring rights of way and financing, in addition to technological work. The goal is to have the technology proven by 2021 and a system running somewhere on the globe between 2025 and 2030.
Gendron sees the shift to a cleantech future as inevitable. “It is a wave coming in. I don’t think that anyone can stop it now,” he says.
For Toronto-based smart thermostat company Ecobee, innovation has been crucial to maintaining a competitive edge. Its Wi–Fi-enabled home thermostats are controlled through a smartphone app, and they can gather data from remote sensors placed in a number of rooms.
Ecobee is proof that “in a lot of product categories, cleantech is just good business,” said Stuart Lombard, CEO of Ecobee.
The key selling point for the product is that for a relatively small outlay (about $300), a homeowner can conserve energy, save money and help reduce their home’s environmental footprint. The average household savings on heating and cooling costs are about 23 percent. Considering that Ecobee is shipping more than one million units a year, the total energy savings are significant.
Ecobee is now one of the three top players in the fast-growing North American smart thermostat market, along with Nest (owned by Google) and Honeywell. “We are the speedboat between the supertankers,” says Lombard. “Being small allows us to be nimble. We’re playing a David and Goliath type story.” That narrative may soon change, as the company is doubling in size each year.
While the products inside your home are advancing, so too are the materials used to build your home. A great example of this is CarbonCure, a company that takes waste carbon dioxide—collected from oil refineries, coal-fired plants or fertilizer plants—and injects it into concrete as it is being manufactured. The process makes the concrete stronger, and also permanently sequesters CO2, one of the major culprits in climate change.
About 40 concrete plants across North America already have the CarbonCure technology installed, says CEO Robert Niven, and he expects that to rise to 150 by the end of this year.
Niven foresees far more products making profitable use of carbon dioxide, stating that technologies that use carbon can account for 15 percent of global emission reductions. “There’s a real opportunity here to use that CO2 to make products, rather than treating it as waste,” he says.
Niven also says he is not concerned about the new administration in the US, as he has sold his technology even in the most conservative parts of the south—purely based on economic benefits.
Still, he said, the Canadian government’s enthusiastic embrace of green technologies is a “once-in-a-generation” chance for this country to leap ahead. Since coming to power, the Trudeau government has made clean economic growth a strategic priority. It committed $1 billion to initiatives to create a low-carbon economy. Further support for the cleantech industry is expected following the government’s conclusion of a climate deal with the provinces, which included a commitment to carbon pricing.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for Canadian cleantech companies to not only serve the domestic market, but to use that as a springboard for exports,” says Niven.
One company that could gain from carbon pricing is GreenMantra Technologies. This Ontario company is tapping into a $10-billion global wax market with a breakthrough process that takes plastics, such as shampoo bottles, milk jugs or plastic wrap, and transforms them into waxes and lubricants used in adhesives, paint, rubber, and even in shingles or asphalt.
According to President and CEO Kousay Said, the product’s green credentials aren’t a factor when it sells its products—it has to compete on price with the traditionally produced waxes. “We’re essentially just another competitor, except that we’re producing the commodity using a clean technology.” Widespread adoption of carbon pricing could give his products a competitive advantage or boost margins, as competitors make their waxes from oil, natural gas or coal.
The company’s first full-scale manufacturing plant in Brantford, Ontario, can turn out 5,000 tonnes of waxes per year. It is planning to expand the Brantford facility and build another outside Ontario.
Said says he is not worried about maintaining sources of recycled plastic. So much still goes to landfills that there’s future supply “as far as the eye can see.” And with efforts now underway to recover plastic waste from the ocean, “that could be years and years of supply for us,” he says.
As the need to address climate change becomes increasingly urgent, the market for environmentally sustainable technologies will continue to grow. This creates an enormous economic opportunity that Canada is well positioned to seize. Cleantech could be a major economic driver for this country, creating highly-skilled, well-paid jobs while helping generate environmentally responsible growth.
We have built a strong foundation. Our companies are world-class and are innovating with disruptive, clean technologies in almost every part of the economy. It’s essential that Canada continue to be a favourable environment for cleantech companies. We must ensure that the pipeline of innovation remains strong and, critically, that our leading companies stay in Canada as they scale up their operations and become global players.
This golden ring is clearly within our grasp. We must not let it slip through our fingers.
Global Cleantech 100
The eleven Canadian companies included in this year’s Global Cleantech 100 list of the world’s top private innovators represent an astonishing range of technologies.
Among the Canadians are Vancouver’s Axine Water Technologies, which specializes in treating toxic organics in wastewater. Another Vancouver firm, Saltworks Technologies, has created new and innovative techniques for treating salinized industrial wastewater.
Vancouver’s MineSense Technologies has developed a system, which cuts energy, water and chemical use in the mining industry by sensing and sorting low-grade ore before it gets to the processing stage.
On the prairies, Winnipeg-based Farmers Edge has created an innovative data management system, which collects and analyzes weather, satellite and market information to help farmers improve crop production and reduce waste.
Ottawa’s GaN Systems makes low-cost high-efficiency transistors from Gallium Nitride, while Burnaby BC-based General Fusion is working on leading-edge technology to generate commercially viable power from fusion reactions.
Others on the list include Dartmouth, NS-based CarbonCure, which sequesters CO2 in concrete; Richmond, BC’s Corvus Energy Storage System, which makes large-scale lithium ion batteries for marine applications; Toronto smart thermostat maker Ecobee; Vancouver power control company Enbala Power Networks; and Brantford, Ontario-based GreenMantra which transforms waste plastic into industrial waxes.
The Global Cleantech 100 is published each year by San Francisco-based Cleantech Group; winners are selected from almost 10,000 nominated firms. They look for organizations most likely to have a market impact over the next five to ten years, and only independent, for-profit entities that are not traded on major stock exchanges qualify.